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The Sherpa Effect

"This peak ban may mean a loss of income for me, but for the Sherpas it's an absolute disaster," said Victor Saunders, a guide for New Zealand outfitter Adventure Consultants. "This is their main income for the year and it's been taken away."

According to the Nepal Mountaineering Association, expeditions spend $6 million each season on the Nepal side—not an insignificant sum in a country with a per capita gross national income of just $290. U.S.-based International Mountain Guides (IMG) employs some 50 Sherpas during a typical spring. Its local climbing guides clear over $4,000 a season, with which they often support an extended family. "I don't think any hardship can be greater than the one the Sherpa community is facing," said IMG trip coordinator Erin Simonson.

Veteran outfitter Russell Brice has been fixing rope on the North Ridge for more than a decade. He expected to do so again in 2008. But a week after the announcement from Nepal, he canceled his expedition and pledged to support his unemployed workers himself. "Russell looks after his Sherpas," said Chhuldim Temba Sherpa, co-owner of Kathmandu-based Mountain Experience. "This won't be as much money as normal, but it's a help."

Even those outfitters that anticipated trouble ran into roadblocks. IMG added a trip to Tibet's 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, only to discover that the Chinese had included it in their ban. The peak is located near Nangpa La, the high pass used by Tibetan refugees crossing into India. (It was here in October 2006 that a 17-year-old nun named Kelsang Namtso was shot dead by Chinese soldiers in front of climbers.) "Our hedge failed completely," said Simonson. "[The government] threw the net wider than we expected."

Despite such setbacks, Yin Xunping, a Chinese official supervising the torch expedition, told press in Beijing that putting the Olympic flame on the summit was his only priority. "We shall go all out to ensure the smooth movement of the torch relay. We must strengthen ethnic unity while hostile forces try to drive a wedge between ethnic groups."

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